Toronto playwright Daniel Karasik explores power dynamics in his new play On Top
The Iraq War, the decline of the American working class and the economic rise of China, third-wave feminism, identity politics, and BDSM are just some of the topics playwright Daniel Karasik explores in his new play On Top.
At the top of the show we meet Zach (Michael Goldlist), an Iraq war veteran turned management consultant, and his wife Lisa (Jess Salgueiro), a neoconservative columnist. The couple is undergoing a probing and personal interview by an interrogator (Krista Colosimo) for an unspecified purpose. The set-up is a construct that allows Karasik to explore various power dynamics: gender-based, militaristic, economic, and geopolitical.
The power dynamic between the couple is soon established: Zach likes to be dominated, spanked and pegged by Lisa who in turn gets off on dominating a man whom she sees as powerful and making him submit to her.
Salgueiro and Goldlist have a great rapport and they play off each other very well. However, I would have found their characters more compelling if the power dynamic actually shifted between them more perceptibly throughout the course of the play. I didn’t get a sense of real conflict between Lisa and Zach beyond a few philosophical disagreements so there was no real arc or progression for the characters.
Karasik, who also directed the piece, gives us a tightly paced, densely-packed exploration of the topics. He weaves several threads together, often juxtaposing and intersecting them in interesting ways. There are a lot of ideas in the mix, requiring a lot of active listening and analysis on the part of the audience and I found the discussion stimulating. It definitely held my attention.
For example, the couple debates the merits of corporal punishment for their child; if Iraq would have been better off if the US hadn’t invaded and paved the way for ISIS to fill the power vacuum and, in one of the most compelling scenes, Lisa implores Zach to hit her which he’s reluctant to do. In that confrontation we’re left to ask whether she was actually ceding power or exerting it.
However, I did find the script errant and unfocused. Karasik puts a lot of ideas on the table and plays around with them but there’s never anything resembling a coherent through-line. I kept waiting for something to click, for the pieces to come together and they ultimately never did.
In the end, the experience of the play was like reading a particularly active Reddit post or watching a panel of talking heads on a cable news talk show: arguments are thrown around, sometimes a pithy little nugget is dropped here and there but it never really lands on any sort of satisfying conclusion.
While I found On Top lacking in focus, thought that the the ideas were muddled and I ultimately wasn’t sure what the playwright was trying to say other than “complicated issues are complicated,” the exploration of the ideas in and of themselves is often stimulating, the pacing is tight and the performances engaging so if you don’t mind the ambiguity, it might be worth checking out.
- On Top is playing from March 15 to 20, 2016 at the Tarragon Theatre Workspace (30 Bridgman Avenue)
- Shows run March 15, 16, and 19 at 8 p.m.; March 17, and 18 at 9:30PM; and March 20 at 2:30 p.m.
- Tickets ($12) are available available online, by phone at 416-531-1827 or in person at the Tarragon Theatre box office.
Publicity image courtesy of goodwp.com.